I’m a Jew-phile. This is partly because the Jewish holidays are a lot more fun than the holidays I grew up with. In my family, Easter meant long awkward silences over a ham dinner at my Catholic grandmother’s house. Family members would whisper about who was drinking too much. Out of desperation for something to talk about, someone would bring up politics, which always ended in shouting, since my parents are liberal Democrats and my grandparents are far-right Republicans. The holiday always seemed to end with some family member telling someone else to go fuck themselves. The worst part was that I don’t even like ham.
While my family celebrated Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter, there was no talk about Jesus being born, let alone rising from the dead. We weren’t Christian and we didn’t go to church. There was an Easter Bunny and eggs and candy and that’s about all I knew about it. I grew up with a total lack of religion.
So I was nervous the first time I went to a passover seder with Joel at his Uncle Ron’s house, 14 years ago. Not only was I meeting many of Joel’s extended family members for the first time, but I didn’t know how to act around a holiday that was overtly religious.
Joel insisted that it wasn’t going to be religious and scary. He seemed to be more concerned about his Aunt Reva saying something crass and swearing too much. But when we walked in to the seder, there were a couple of dozen people sitting around two tables with booklets that looked suspiciously religious. They were in the middle of reading the Haggadah. And they were talking in Hebrew. I felt conspicuously out of place.
But within a few minutes, I was put at ease. His family was warm, loud, and a little bit crazy in a good way. There were no awkward silences. They could barely get through the story without Aunt Reva saying something crass or Uncle Ron trying to command attention. Everyone was interrupting each other and joking around. I couldn’t believe these people were actually having fun at a religious holiday – with their family, no less. And while I found out that I’m not a fan of noodle kugel or whitefish salad, I liked them a hell of a lot more than ham.
One of the reasons I enrolled my son Laszlo at a Jewish preschool is that I want him to have the kind of holiday experience that Joel had growing up, not the kind I had. I want Laszlo to be surrounded by friends or family at a seder every year. I want him to be part of a community of people who talk over each other. I don’t really see the point in carrying on the family tradition of Easter ham and awkward silences ending in explosive arguments over whether or not Bill O’Reilly is an asshole.
While I’ve been pretty into the whole “community” and “family” and “loud” aspect of celebrating the Jewish holidays, I kind of forgot about the religious part until last week when I picked up Laszlo from his temple preschool and he started singing a song.
“Bang, bang the hammer low… and work, work, work!” he sang.
“Is that a song you learned in preschool?” I asked. “What’s it about?”
“It goes with a book… There’s an ocean… And you can’t eat and you can’t sleep.”
Laszlo’s interpretation of Passover sounded pretty grim. I have gone to a Passover seder almost every year since that first one with Joel 14 years ago, but beyond the whole exodus of Egypt thing and the importance of matzoh, the details of the story are fuzzy. That may be because I can never hear what anyone is saying when they read the Haggadah because everyone is talking over each other. Or it may be all the red wine I end up drinking, which is pretty much a requirement at a seder. Or it may just be the fact that there’s a lot of Hebrew.
But I realized for the first time that the story of Passover through the eyes of a toddler is kind of surreal and pretty messed up. For starters, the Jewish people were slaves under a mean Pharaoh. Then there’s the part about a wrathful God unleashing ten plagues which included water turning to blood, lice, flies and disease for humans and animals. Also, there’s the killing of children. God decides to pass over the Jewish homes and kill the first born of the gentiles. Which, as a gentile, I take personal offense to. Hey, I didn’t vote for that Pharoah guy. So, why take it out on me, God?
When I dropped Laszlo off at preschool the next day, I asked a teacher about what Laszlo had said. I had figured out that the “ocean” was the parting of the Red Sea. She told me that the other part was about the Pharaoh’s harsh treatment of the Jewish slaves. The version that the teachers had told softened the abuse of the Jews by saying they “couldn’t have a nap or a snack.” But Laszlo saw right through that.
It was only after joining Laszlo and his class in a pre-spring-break Passover seder that I put together a few other strange comments Laszlo had been making lately. For example, he had been insisting that there was a frog in his bed. I now realize that he was referring one of the ten plagues, in which frogs overran Egypt. Luckily, he wasn’t afraid of frogs as a symbol of God’s wrath: When I had asked him if it was a nice frog, he had said yes and that the frog was going to sleep with him.
As much as I love celebrating the Jewish holidays with my friends or with Joel’s family, I think I’m going to have to leave the biblical stories out of it as much as possible for now. Even though there IS something really cute about a three year old singing “Let my people go.” But I wouldn’t tell Laszlo a horror story or let him see a scary movie, and some of these biblical stories are even scarier. Almost as scary as Easter ham and Bill O’Reilly.
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